Ed Miliband rose to thunderous cheers from his backbenches and he tried to capitalise on their support by opening up an ancient Tory wound – heartless attitudes to unemployment. Spotting Cameron chinwagging with Osborne instead of listening, Miliband chided the PM for not paying attention. ‘Well, it’s a novel concept,’ said Dave smoothly ‘but in this government the prime minister and the chancellor speak to each other.’
Ed’s problem was that the OBR has predicted rising employment for the next three years. Bad news for the opposition leader. So he dreamed up an imaginary gloomsday scenario where jobless totals soar and he tried to extract a few post-dated cheques from the PM. ‘If unemployment rises next year will the government revise its tax and spending plans? Yes or No.’ Dave wasn’t about to booby-trap his own economic policy and he avoided the question by arguing blandly, and alliteratively, that in perilous times his task was to bring Britain back from the brink.
Ed seized on this omission. ‘He has ducked the chance to change plans if circumstances change!’ he shrieked as if he’d just produced secret footage of Dave snorting coke off a hooker’s belly-button while Sam was in labour. ‘He said he was a different sort of Tory but he thinks unemployment is a price worth paying.’
This was feeble thunder. It won applause from his backbenchers but Dave retaliated with a portfolio of Labour soundbites that now embarrass their authors. ‘Here’s a phrase the opposition leader may remember. No more boom and bust. Prudence with a purpose – which led to the biggest deficit in decades. And who was the economic adviser at the time?’ He finished by giving Ed some tips on debating from the opposition benches. ‘You can’t attack a plan if you haven’t got a plan.’
Dave barely broke sweat today while Ed failed to live up to the great promise of last week’s debut. During backbench questions, Cameron let slip two highlights from Osborne’s statement. Science spending will be frozen rather than cut, and capital investment in renewable energy will be protected.
No fewer than three Tory backbenchers raised the issue of Europe and reminded us that the EU is merrily gorging on our taxes while national governments are on a crash diet. Doubtless this was a pre-meditated attack and although three questions hardly amounts to an ambush it confirms that the beast of Tory scepticism is a slumbering giant not an extinct one.